The prospect of a law that would allow Tennessee eleventh-graders to opt out of the ACT exam brought Clint Satterfield to tears as the Trousdale County Schools superintendent described students who take the test because it’s required, do better than expected, and go on to pursue college and better career opportunities.

“I’m sorry to get emotional,” Satterfield told state lawmakers on Wednesday, “but this is darn right important!”

In a close vote, the House Education Instruction and Programs subcommittee concurred with Satterfield, who oversees schools in a primarily rural district northeast of Nashville. Members voted 4-3 against a bill that would have allowed students to forego the ACT if their parents let them to opt out.

Under current law, every public school student must take the ACT in the eleventh grade as a strategy for schools to assess the college readiness of their students. Students can use the test to gain entrance to college and receive scholarships.

However, Rep. David “Coach” Byrd (R-Waynesboro), the bill’s sponsor, expressed concern that some students are not interested in pursuing further education after high school and don’t try on the mandated exam – bringing down the average for their school, district and state.

Nationally, Tennessee students rank below the average in ACT scores. In 2013-14, Tennessee’s composite ACT score for public school students was 19.3 on a scale of 36. To be considered college-ready, students must score a 21, which is also the national average score.

“The reason I’m trying to get this bill passed is there are students that are sitting down to take the ACT that is [sic] not interested in taking the ACT at all,” said Byrd, who retired in December as principal of Wayne County High School. “So therefore they draw Christmas trees on the answer sheet, they’ll mark all As or all Bs. . . . It’s a reflection on the school and it’s a reflection across Tennessee.”

Byrd also said he believes students in Tennessee are over-tested.

Opponents of the bill argued that just because students don’t want to take the exam doesn’t mean they shouldn’t. “We’ve tried to support our students and not enable our students,” Satterfield said during his emotional plea.

The state will reach out to ACT administrators to ensure that outliers don’t negatively impact schools’ overall scores, said Stephen Smith, liaison for the Tennessee Department of Education.

But Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) said the outliers are important, too. “We need to look at it as ACT – an assessment of what our schools have accomplished over 11 years,” he said. “The kids who do the Christmas tree pattern? That tells us something.”

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Rep. Billy Spivey (R-Lewisburg), who voted for the bill, took offense at the assumption that the legislature and schools know better than parents what’s best for students.

Nationally, more than 1.8 million high school students and graduates take the ACT every year. Tennessee is among a dozen states that require eleventh-graders to take the assessment.

In other education-related legislative developments on Wednesday:

  • Senate Bill 535, which would require a school district to close a virtual school after three years of low academic scores, was rolled until next week. esan
  • A bill to change how schools deal with truancy — when students miss a large number of school days for reasons other than illness — unanimously passed in the Senate Education Committee. If the bill becomes law, schools no longer will simply take the students to juvenile court but instead must meet with the students — who are often among the state’s most impoverished — and work with their families to take preventative measures.
Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.
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